(This is a guest post from Katie Minahan from Just Chasing Sunsets about her time in Ecuador visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site “City of Quito.” She also shares other amazing things to do in Quito and beyond the city. I’ve listed Quito, Ecuador as one of my 101 Epic History Travel Ideas.)
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Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is nestled in the Andes mountains on the slopes of the active Pichincha volcano at a breathtaking altitude of 2850m. Many people only arrive in Quito as a stopover before heading off to the Galapagos islands, however, a visit to the city will show you one of the best preserved, and least altered, city centers in Latin America, which is why UNESCO named the city of Quito a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978.
Quito holds a special place in my traveling journey as it was the first destination on my current 7 months of travel. I spent two months in Quito, teaching yoga at a lively hostel located just one block from Plaza Teatro and about a 3-minute walk to Plaza Grande. During those two months, I took advantage of exploring the beautiful historic center as well as surrounding cities. I hope you take the opportunity to experience Quito!
Here are the things to do in Quito while you are there:
Explore the City Center
Considering Quito has the best-preserved city center in Latin America, it is definitely a must visit. When you’re short on time, a great way to see the majority of Quito’s city center is to take a free walking tour. A great one is with Free Walking Tour Ecuador. Their tours will highlight the most important landmarks while providing the historical significance necessary to understand present-day Quito.
If you’re more of a DIY traveler, start in Plaza de la Independencia, aka Plaza Grande. Here you will find Carondelet Palace (the Presidential palace), the Cathedral of Quito, the Municipal building and Archbishops Palace (next to Hotel Plaza Grande). Plaza Grande is always bustling with people and has lovely cafes for people watching.
But don’t stop there! There are plenty of beautiful buildings and streets to discover just steps away from Plaza Grande. Specifically, there are two churches that are well worth the cost of admission; Basilica del Voto Nacional and La Iglesia de Compania de Jesus.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
This impressive Catholic church boasts stunning panoramic views of Quito if you’re willing to climb the questionable ladder to the top of the tower. Along the way to the top, you’ll pass a gorgeously colorful stained glass window, just ripe for a new profile picture. It costs $3 to climb to the top of the tower. Elevators are available for a portion of the climb, and the rickety ladders at the end will bring you to these views!
When you visit, just be aware that there are two separate fees. There is a $1 fee to enter the church and a $3 fee to climb the tower. While the interior of the church is well done, but it’s the views from the tower that take the cake. Plus, you can head to La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus for a jaw-dropping church interior.
La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus
I’ve got a thing for classic churches and the ornate interior of La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus does not disappoint. Every corner of this church has intricate golden details, that shine brightly as the light dances on the walls from the ceiling windows. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photos of the interior – you’ll just have to see it to believe it. It only costs $2 to marvel at the interior.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city center’s architecture, head to one of the many parks within the city for a breath of fresh air; such as Itchimbia, Parque Metropolitan, or Parque la Carolina. Additionally, a visit to Pichincha is a must to realize the expanse of the entire city.
Hike Rucu Pichincha
The Pichincha volcano is an excellent vantage point to appreciate the vastness of the city. There’s no need to summit the volcano to see amazing views. At the base of the volcano, you’ll be able to appreciate just how far Quito spreads lengthwise from the city center.
However, a hike to the top of Rucu Pichincha is also a solid choice for an acclimatization hike for those planning to summit surrounding volcanoes. It’s also great if you’re like me and just want to test your hiking capabilities. I am not a strong hiker, and this was a fairly challenging hike. It took me approximately two hours and plenty of breaks to reach the summit. But just as I scrambled over the last volcanic rock, I was rewarded with parting clouds and a stunning view of Quito and the surrounding volcanoes. On the walk back to the Teleferiqo, the clouds parted once again, allowing Cotopaxi to show off its perfect peak.
If you decide to summit Rucu Pichincha, I suggest starting the hike before 10:00 am as the clouds tend to roll in in the afternoon making it difficult to see both directly in front of you and the view of the city. Additionally, make sure you spend at least one day acclimatizing to the altitude in Quito, as the peak of Pichincha is 4700m above sea level. As always, pack plenty of snacks, lots of water and wear layers – it’s chilly at the top! To access Pichincha it’s just a short $5 taxi drive and an $8.50 Teleferiqo ride to the base of the volcano from the city center.
If hiking isn’t quite your thing and you happen to be visiting on a Sunday, check out Ciclopaseo!
Every Sunday, from 8am-2pm, the main thoroughfare, Avenida Amazonas is closed down for cars and open for pedestrians and cyclists. It expands 30km from the historical city center to the old airport. Biking this route you’ll see drastic changes in architecture from the historical city center which will give you an appreciation for the different neighborhoods of Quito.
I did this ride with a few friends and we started at Plaza Teatro and followed the very obvious route on Avenida Amazonas. We rode through some of the city’s parks and eventually stopped at the old airport. Seeing the old runways converted to a park and filled with people enjoying a sunny Sunday was a blast. It’s also crazy to realize that planes used to land on those runways in such close proximity to the houses!
Joining the locals on the Ciclopaseo is a really unique way to experience Quito. There are local bike shops that rent bikes for approximately $10 for the day. Rent a bike from a local shop and join in on the fun!
Day Trips and Weekend Getaways from Quito
Don’t contain your trip to just the city center. There are great day trips from Quito to add to your itinerary.
There is no shortage of activities to keep you busy in Ecuador, and many are just a bus ride away from Quito. For the hikers, Cotopaxi is an easy day trip away, and if you’d like to do a longer trek, the Quilotoa Loop is quite challenging and leaves you breathless (literally and figuratively) when you arrive on day three to Quilotoa Lake.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, head to Baños for the weekend. In Baños you can bungee jump, white water raft, and ride a bike to waterfalls. Then at the end of your day adventuring, you can join the locals in the thermal baths and take in the view of the surrounding nature. Oh, don’t forget to swing at Casa de Arbol!
If you’re less of an adrenaline junkie, but love exploring waterfalls, Mindo is one of my favorite places in Ecuador. Mindo is a small town, with dirt roads, and incredibly friendly people. You can take a ride in a somewhat sketchy cable car across a vast canyon and spend the day exploring a plethora of waterfalls. You can swim and jump into the falls as well (for a small fee).
What to Know Before You Go
Practical information for planning your trip to Quito.
Getting to Quito
Most people arrive in Quito by plane or by bus. The main airport is Aeropuerto Mariscal Sucre and is located about 40 minutes by taxi outside of the city center. A taxi or uber from the airport into Quito should cost approximately $20-35 depending on your destination in the city center.
Quito has two major bus stations; Carcelen in the North and Quitumbe in the South. From each of these stations, you can take a taxi or a local bus to your destination. When you take taxis be sure the meter is turned on and reset before the ride begins. Buses within the city center cost $0.25.
Quito’s Location and Altitude Concerns
Quito’s proximity to the equator and its altitude lend to some interesting weather qualities. The city has mild weather throughout the year, I liken it to year-round Springtime. Additionally, the sun rises and sets at approximately the same time each day. Due to its location near the equator and its altitude, the sun is much stronger than the temperature belies. So sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses are a must during the day and a jacket will help keep you warm in the evenings.
Some people have altitude issues upon arrival to Quito, others don’t. I had a mild to a moderate headache for the first three days, in addition to a poor ability to sleep. After three days, I jetted off to the Galapagos and when I returned I had no headaches or other altitude issues. To prevent any potential altitude sickness, take it easy on your first few days in Quito. Hydrate well with water, and limit alcohol intake as that will make the symptoms much worse. I’ll be honest, after 2 months of living there, I still got abnormally winded every time I had to climb stairs!
If you’re coming from the US, there’s no need to change your money, as Ecuador’s currency is USD. If not, simply change your money to USD upon arrival. ATMs are available throughout the city as well.
When visiting the city center or using public transportation, keep an eye on your belongings. It’s a good idea to wear your backpack on your front and keep your cell phone out of sight. Pickpocketing, bag snatching, and other manners of theft is the most common crime against tourists. If you decide to explore the city center in the evenings, make sure to go with a group and not alone.
Where to Stay in Quito
Since I taught yoga at a hostel, I only stayed in that hostel for the duration of my time living in Quito. It’s called Community Hostel and it’s a place where you feel like family from the moment you arrive. They also have a travel agency and an onsite chef who cooks delicious breakfasts and dinners at a reasonable price. Generally, a hostel dorm bed costs $10-$15 per night and the two most popular neighborhoods to stay are near the historic center or near La Mariscal.
When to Go?
Since the weather in Quito stays fairly stable year around, there really is no “bad” time to go. But if you don’t like rain, skip the traditional rainy season from October to May. Although, I was there from January until March and it was mostly sunny!
Bottom line, get out of the airport and spend some time in the city of Quito!